The Forest Park District 91 school board voted unanimously to expand its preschool program at a meeting on April 11, in an effort to address a long student waiting list and attract families to the district.
“The reality that we’re faced with is that we have more teaching positions in the district than we have the need for in classrooms. So by adding one teacher, two sections of preschool, we can use one of those teaching positions in that capacity, and we’ll have the room as well,” Superintendent Louis Cavallo said at the meeting. “We truly would have preschool for all. No kids on the waiting list, the kids that wanted it, it would be available.”
At the meeting, Cavallo said there were 21 students currently on D91’s preschool waiting list, with many prospective preschool attendees declining to even add their name to the list. “The number could have probably been a little higher,” Cavallo said, adding that every year D91 has offered its free, half-day preschool program, enough students have been interested to comprise another section in the morning, and another section in the afternoon. Two additional sections will be added next school year.
“When we’re talking about our declining enrollment and what we can do, the grade levels that had the greatest drops in enrollment… were our younger grades,” he said.
At the beginning of this school year, Cavallo reported there were 761 students—age preschool to eighth grade—enrolled, which is down 59 students from the year prior. That is the largest drop in enrollment D91 has experienced in at least six school years, and also represents the smallest number of students enrolled in the district during the same time.
Much of the district’s loss came from its younger students, with 20 fewer students enrolled in kindergarten this school year compared to last, and 19 fewer first-graders enrolled year over year. Three students left the district between kindergarten and first-grade.
“If we can get kids into our preschool, hopefully we’ll be able to have them continue on,” he said.
In the current preschool program, Cavallo said that a third of the students are referred to the district since they have an individualized education program (IEP), a third are “at-risk” students and a third of the students “know all their alphabet when they come in.” He pointed to two years’ worth of data from D91’s preschool assessment — which tests skills like letter recognition, colors and numbers — and that shows students’ increased comprehension in the topics from the beginning to the end of the school year. He added that the benefit is striking for minority students and that expanding D91’s preschool program is in-line with the district’s equity imperative, which charges officials to reflect on how every move impacts underserved student populations.
“Those students that are low-income students, preschool makes a huge difference,” Cavallo said. “The research also clearly indicates that it also makes a huge difference for Latino students. The research on black students was a little less clear because there were multiple effects, a lot of the African-American students were also in the low-income category. But the research went on to say that, the assumptions are that, it is having a positive effect on all of those subgroups.”
Cavallo added that, anecdotally, kindergarten and first-grade teachers told him that students who attended D91’s preschool program also performed better in the following grades.
Board member Eric Connor called himself “a big supporter” of pre-kindergarten education because of the academic benefits it provides to students “that come in without the situation that a middle- and upper-class family provide,” but wondered why the benefit of preschool fades as students age.
“The thing that I guess troubles me is that, as they go through upper level grades it apparently evens out and it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference by the time they hit high school,” he said. “I just wonder if there is anything out there that shows why that is occurring?”
Cavallo said there are multiple studies that address that topic, and that “it all has to do with the issue of equity and how those effects become greater as students get older. Societal issues and social issues impact learning to a much greater degree.”
Christina Ricordati, a board member, said that, while she was happy to see students’ increased academic performance due to the district’s preschool program, she was also impressed with how the program prepared children emotionally for classroom life.
“That readiness to start kindergarten versus not being ready for first- or second-grade, we shouldn’t understate that,” she said. “I’m a big proponent of very play-based [learning], all of those things, and so I’m less swayed by stuff like a 10 percent or 15 percent better identification of numbers and letters, and more by, how can we get those kids emotionally ready to be in the classroom?”